There are already too many decisions to make at a restaurant. Not only do you have to pick from a plethora of locations in the first place, but then you’re tasked with combing through a lengthy menu, deciding on a cocktail, determining whether you’re ordering an entree or shared plates for the table, and then on top of all that, the server needs to know if you want tap, bottled, or sparkling water. Who has the time? If restaurants can make small changes to how they serve water, they can not only save diners from added anxiety but also have huge environmental impacts.
The main reason for restaurants even offering bottled water is to make an extra buck, and the same goes doubly for bottled sparkling waters. Especially in fine dining establishments, the markup on a bottle of San Pellegrino can be more than what it would cost to order a beer at a more casual spot. But the overall effect these bottles have on the planet is chilling.
According to Harvard University’s Sustainability program, more than 17 million barrels of oil are used per year in water bottle production to meet current demand. And even though most plastic water bottles are now recyclable, 86% of them still end up in landfills.
Harvard also points out that bottled water isn’t even that much cleaner or safer than tap water. In some cities, the monitoring of municipal drinking water is even more rigorous than that of packaged goods. If you’re ordering bottled water for health and safety reasons, you might not be accomplishing as much as you think. Not to mention, water filtration systems are now commonplace, especially in restaurants, so even the “tap” water you’re being offered is cleaner than most. These days, even carbonation add-ons can create sparkling water straight from the faucet.
In the last decade, droughts have impacted whether or not you’d even be offered water when sitting down to dine. In 2014, NPR reported on the practice of restaurants only bringing guests water if they ask for it. It’s an act that has resurfaced many times over in the years since as the water supply across the nation has been threatened. With the huge amounts of water required to cook meals and wash dishes, holding back on serving drinking water might not seem substantial, but as with many things relating to our environmental impact, every little bit counts.
Obviously restaurants shouldn’t stop serving water altogether—people still need to be hydrated, and having a free drink option is a humane way to run an operation. But that doesn’t mean every guest needs a glass of water from the jump. There are plenty of times that I go out to eat and never even touch the pint of ice water before me, at least not until I chug it in my final moments, feeling guilty knowing it will go to waste.
Instead of opening with “sparkling or still or tap?” servers can simply start with “what can I get you to drink?” That allows guests to order water if that’s what they’re planning on drinking, but also allows the less water-inclined among us to go straight for a cocktail or a soda or a tea without wasting anything. And most guests will in fact be fine with whatever water you bring them—not having sparkling or bottled water on a menu isn’t a make-or-break business move. It’s these small changes that make little difference to customers but all the difference when it comes to our carbon footprint.